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"Lords of the sea" by John Hale, a review

"Lords of the sea" is the story of the rise and fall of Athenian thalassocracy from the V to the IV century, with a specific focus on the fleet and its developments, and particularly on the "naval mob" (the rowers, mostly) and their interests and their political and social relevance and role in Athens.

A couple of info about the author John Hale will tell you what you need to know about the book, really. He's an archeologist who studied at Yale with Donald Kagan, who originally told him to study Athenian naval history for his dissertation. He gave Kagan the idea to sum up his work on the Pelopponesian wars in a single volume for the general readers (thanks!). In exchange, Kagan told his editors that Hale was the right guy for writing about the naval aspects of the war (that was the original idea for this book, which then expanded). He met Morrison and Coates, and was among the rowers of their first trial model which would then become the Olympias. He visited Bjorn Loven excavating the shipsheds at the Piraeus, and he went looking for sunk triremes in the Egean with the Persian Wars Shipwrecks Survey (didn't find any, however). You get the picture, no?

I really enjoyed this book. It is beautifully written in a lively but clear style, a pleasure to read. It covers an incredibly wide timespan and provides a fully comprehensive history of Athens, from the humble beginnings of a small commercial town losing its competition with Egina to a national leader in the Persian war, to the superpower facing Sparta during the Pelopponesian war, and then its fall and rebirth as a major power with the second maritime league, and then the final defeat against Macedon which finally extinguished Athenian imperialism.

However, because the author firmly keeps the fleet at the center of the story (with all its dimensions, technological, social and political), the narration is never shallow or dry. The naval element really provides the prism through which the author depicts and explains the interplay between culture, internal politics, international developments and military history of the various wars. This is fascinating because then the recount of wars and battles, most of which the reader already knows about, is placed into a much deeper and richer context, which adds considerably to the reader's comprehension and full appreciation of the significance of the different battles and engagements.

This is not to say that there is not much on those issue of most interest to wargamers, on the contrary. After all, the story of classical Athens is one of an almost continuous warfare, and most of it was at sea. All campaigns are described with an acceptable degree of detail, and most of the major naval battle such as Cyzicus or Aegospotami as well. But clearly, the minutiae of naval warfare are not the key interest of the author. Again, just an overview is provided but, coming from a student of Kagan, it is a pretty deep, convincing and well written overview.

This is a book that really nurtures and enriches the interest for ancient naval stuff. If you do have such an interests, this is a must read. If you are only looking for an analysis of trireme tactics, or for a list of naval battles with OOBs and brief sum-ups, this is not what you are looking for (try this one, for example). But you still should get this one, anyway.

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